Last Updated 30 May, 2023


What it is and how to cope with it

It is normal to feel anxious from time to time. When we are facing an interview, or the possibility of redundancy, or awaiting the results of an important medical test, we can feel worried about what might happen and perhaps tense and anxious about how we will be affected.

In most cases, the tension will go away once the stressful situation is over. However, some people experience such strong feelings of anxiety that they are unable to cope with their day-to-day life. Often the cause is a clear problem but sometimes for no clear reason, it is possible to become deeply troubled.

We can feel highly anxious and it can last for days or weeks or even longer. Anxiety affects us all but becomes a problem when we can't relax at times when we should be able to; when it appears for no clear reason; when we can't switch off the worry no matter how hard we try; or if our lives start to centre round anxiety (for example when we avoid going places or doing things due to fear of what might happen).

What is Anxiety?

Men and women of all ages and from all backgrounds are affected by anxiety and there are several different aspects to it. Some people have anxious thoughts that cause them to have worries and fears, where they go over things again and again in their mind in a way that does not actually help resolve it. This can then begin to link in with panicky thoughts and fears that something catastrophic and deeply threatening is happening right now such as a faint or collapse, a stroke or a heart attack.

Feelings and emotions can become altered with anxiety too, ranging from milder feelings of emotional tension through to worry and anxiety, to very high states of panic that occur during panic attacks.

Physical symptoms can include milder levels of tension like muscle tension, tiredness, pain, a slight jittery feeling, disrupted sleep patterns, and hot and/or cold sweats. If the symptoms of anxiety increase and move towards panic, a full fight or flight adrenaline response can occur.

Each person will experience anxiety in his or her own particular way, but there are a number of symptoms people often describe:

  • Tense muscles can cause headaches or pain in the neck, shoulders or back
  • A dry mouth can make it hard to swallow
  • Breathlessness and feeling dizzy, or feeling faint from breathing more rapidly
  • Some people may experience indigestion, butterflies, constipation or diarrhoea because adrenaline causes blood to be taken away from the digestion to the heart and muscles
  • The heart may beat alarmingly quickly
  • Sometimes it is possible to experience panic as the fight or flight adrenaline response occurs
  • It may be difficult to concentrate on anything and you may become very irritable with other people
  • Being weepy and emotional, your thinking may become increasingly negative
  • Difficulty in sleeping and as a result become increasingly exhausted

What can you do?

Anxiety can make it hard for us to cope with day-to-day demands. We may become isolated from other people, we may feel very frightened at what is happening to us, yet don't know how to change. It can be very draining to be so tense and fraught all the time.

There are steps you can take yourself to reduce your anxiety and you may have to work hard at these day after day. It may be that whatever action you take will make you more anxious to begin with. This should decrease with time, but in the early stages you may find yourself needing to use support from other people to help you keep up your own efforts.

What helps may be different for each of us, but other people have said they found these things useful:

  • Read self-help material for information and skills on how to address anxiety
  • Try to concentrate on the 'here and now' and not concern yourself too much with 'what if'
  • When you find someone you can talk to about how you feel try to avoid the danger of becoming too dependent on them or looking for them to solve problems for you
  • Work out whether there are any specific situations you find particularly alarming. Set yourself targets so that you can gradually work at facing these situations and getting the better of them in a planned step-by-step way
  • Control your symptoms by learning and practising breathing and relaxation techniques. This can help you control the level of anxiety you experience so that it is manageable. You can find out more about relaxation techniques from your doctor or counsellor
  • Allow yourself a breathing space. Do something you really enjoy or treat yourself. Perhaps there's something you used to like doing but haven't done for a while
  • Take a step back and think about how you live your life. If you're overloaded, work out what's most important to you, and shed what is not important
  • If someone else is making too many demands on you - your boss or a family member perhaps - try to work out a plan for talking to them about it without blaming them
  • Exercise has been shown to benefit generalised anxiety disorders, phobias and panic attacks. Taking up walking, swimming or yoga can help relieve tension
  • Review your diet, caffeine intake, alcohol and smoking intake, try to eat healthily and take a moderate amount of exercise. If you use illegal drugs then plan to reduce and cut these out
  • Identify and challenge exaggerated worries and pessimistic thoughts
  • Talk about your anxiety problems with other people such as trusted family members, friends or self-help groups

Getting help from others

It may be that what you can do on your own is not enough. Although it can be hard to be open about your fears and anxieties and take up help from people you don't yet know or trust, it can also be an enormous relief to stop putting on a brave face and to find that you can get help.

There are various sources of support available:

  • It is important to visit your doctor to have a medical check up to rule out any physical cause
  • Your doctor may decide to treat you or may suggest you see a psychologist or a psychiatrist or other member of the mental health team for specialist help. A prescription of anti-anxiety medication may also be made. These can offer some relief and can be helpful in the short term to get through a crisis
  • Counselling and psychotherapy give people the chance to talk through their problems, focussing on present feelings about difficulties, which may be current or rooted in the past, and enable them to take more control of life and cope in the longer-term

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